The Seductive Reds of Friuli Venezia-Giulia

A journey through the wines of this Northern Italian region

I remember my first few encounters with Friulian reds. I adored them instantly. The wines possess freshness and cheerful purpose. Brisk acidity focuses the wines and feisty, sometimes bracing tannins add a vivid crunch. Earthy, woodsy components play an important aromatic role.

By woodsy, I don’t mean they’re weirdly funky. Anzi (on the contrary), they tend to be spick-and-span clean. This allows them to clearly reveal their northern climate and soil. Consider that Austria is a hop-skip-and-a-jump away, then reconsider the vast dichotomies amongst Italian persona. Moreover, until 1919, Friuli was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hai capito? There is a technical and sometimes downright dogmatic carefulness behind the wines’ natural exuberance. Friuli’s winemaking cognoscenti are fervently dedicated to quality. More than 60 percent of their production is DOC, and their yields are amongst the lowest in Italy.

Playing word association with high quality, wine and Friuli usually conjures up white wine, yet, interestingly, red wine accounts for 40 percent of the region’s production (I wish we had more here in the U.S.). Unusually for northern Italy, it’s a non-Italian grape that absorbs a vast amount of the vineyard — merlot! The Italians will argue — convincingly — that it’s been here for ages, so it’s now indigenous. Maybe their insistence upon pronouncing the "t" is a way to further claim it as their own. Unfortunately, a lot of this merlot reminds me of most Bordelais merlot. My single-syllable comment is, "Bleah."

There is also plenty of very good juice. Hunkering down over the nitty-gritty DOC&G details, one discovers that Friuliani reds are currently G-less. So, in perfectly contradictory Italianness, there are many Friulian reds that are not only exceedingly excellent and insistent on busting wallets, but that also carry no "G."

All the grapes for this juice grow in the southern half of the region. The Alps dominate the north. Winemakers who cultivate Friuli’s vineyards in the south escape to the high elevations up north to ski. It is these grand slopes that save their vines from harsh north winds. The more northerly vineyards of Colli Orientali (colli meaning hills) are markedly cooler and more continental than the southern vineyards of Collio Goriziano, whose temperatures are moderated by the Adriatic Sea. More red is produced in Colli Orientali than in Collio Goriziano, and it tends to be more powerful red, too.

To the west of these hills is Grave del Friuli, the region’s largest DOC. Merlot is widely planted on this large alluvial plain, which is generously strewn with gravel. These red wines tend to show a character that ranges from herbal to weedy. Moving south toward the sea, some hearty reds can be found in Lison-Pramaggiore. Traveling east to Latisana, Annia, and Aquilea, the soils are more fertile. This means the wines are generally less hefty and more readily quaffable.

Back in eastern Friuli and directly south of Collio is Isonzo. The vineyard-scape here is quite different. The hills disappear, the proximity of the sea provides additional warmth and rain falls more frequently. Finally, extending south along the Adriatic is Carso. Though grown elsewhere in Friuli, Terrano — frustratingly said to be both related to and the same as Refosco — is the sub-regional specialty.

Click here for are tasting notes on some top examples of seductive Friuliano reds.

— Christy Cantebury, Snooth